Archive for May, 2020

Life and Death in Pompeii on film

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

In 2013, the British Museum staged an exhibition dedicated to the daily lives of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum and how they were snuffed out by the eruption of Vesuvius. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum was a blockbuster, selling more than 50,000 advance tickets and drawing crowds of visitors flocking to see the more 250 artifacts from the British Museum’s collection and on loan from the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii. The show feature some iconic pieces — the fresco portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife, the “CAVE CANEM” mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, the sculpture of Pan having sex with a goat, the plaster cast of a dog writhing in its final agony — as well as lesser known but no less remarkable survivors, like a carbonized cradle, a loaf of bread, a life-sized bronze hare mould used to make cakes or terrines.

A private tour of the show was broadcast in movie theaters at the time. The hour-and-a-half film walks viewers through the exhibition guided by curators and experts including Mary Beard and Giorgio Locatelli. It covers the history of the towns’ destruction, the last two days of their ancient existence

It’s got a sexual content warning because of the many explicit artifacts typifying Roman frankness about sexuality that were found at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mary Beard discussing whether a third figure in a fresco of a couple in a reverse cowgirl posture was part of a threesome or an ignored slave or a voyeur is good clean fun, as far as I’m concerned, as is her discussion of the triple-phallus wind chime ( “phalluses to the power of x” “with bells on!”) and the one about the “more hardcore” Pan-goat statue.

Seven years later, the British Museum has uploaded the complete film to its YouTube channel. It’s one hour and 27 minutes long and even so not nearly long enough for me. They should have made it a mini-series. Pompeii Live is free to view, of course, but like so many of its brethren, the museum has been hard-hit by the extended closure, so if you’d like to help support it, donate here


Tools hidden by prisoners found at Auschwitz

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020

A cache of objects hidden by prisoners has been discovered under cellblock 17 of the Auschwitz main camp. Block 17 has been undergoing renovations since September in preparation for a new exhibition dedicated to Austrian citizens who were imprisoned and murdered at the extermination camp. The aim was to remove non-original construction elements added to the building in 1978 when the Austrian exhibition was first installed there, while preserving the national exhibition itself which was developed with the priceless contributions of Auschwitz survivors who are now no longer with us. In the process the work crew discovered unexpected original features which altered the renovation plans.

Come March and Poland’s implementation of stringent anti-coronavirus measures, renovations continued with a drastically reduced crew focusing solely on ensuring the structural safety of the building. They were shoring up the original masonry when they discovered a chimney flue. Underneath it were a wealth of objects hidden by prisoners: scissors, spoons, forks, knives, hooks, leather scraps, parts of shoes and cobbler’s tools.

The National Fund’s structural consultant, master builder Ing. Johannes Hofmeister, believes that it is no coincidence that a chimney was used as a hiding place in the very building where chimney sweeps were accommodated. It is likely that people with special manual skills were housed in the building. Survivor testimonies indicate that there were a number of workshops in the cellar where, for example, baskets were woven.

In the absence of an in-depth analysis by historians and conservators, it is still too early to discuss how they were used and the possible intentions of the prisoners – conceivable examples include making and repairing clothes, locksmithing or to prepare for an escape. It is also possible that the scissors and cutlery were used to barter with other prisoners.

The new exhibition is scheduled to open in 2021. The objects discovered under the flue are not expected to go on display when the Block 17 exhibition reopens. They have been transferred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum for conservation.


Snake fossil found to be boa with infrared vision

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

The Messel Pit in Hesse, Germany, was a quarry mined for coal and shale from the mid-1800s until 1971. Fossils were found there beginning in 1900, but the pit could not be scientifically explored until after mining ended. The fossils were preserved in the anoxic environment created when layers of decaying vegetation and mud were deposited on the bed of an ancient lake. Because of the unique conditions of the lake and the shale formation 47 million years ago, Messel Pit fossils are of exceptional diversity and so well-preserved that fur, feathers, scales, stomach contents, even multiple pairs of turtles frozen in the act of mating have been unearthed there. It is one of the richest fossil repositories, the richest source of early mammal fossils and the greatest source of information about the Eocene epoch in the world.

Quarrying left a crater 200 feet deep that some people thought would make an awesome landfill. After much protest at this ruinous plan, in 1991 the government of Hesse bought the pit and made it a protected cultural monument.  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 and is now operated by the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research.

Among the rare fossils that have been found in unusual number are complete snake skeletons from four species. Two of them are small, around 20 inches long, but one of them, Palaeopython fischeri, could reach lengths of more than six feet. Named after Joschka Fisher, Hesse’s Minister of the Environment in the 80s and 90s who was instrumental in the conservation of the Messel Pit, the snake was classified as a member of the Palaeopython genus, but a new study has found it is actually an Eoconstrictor, a relative of modern boa constrictors.

A detailed analysis of the neurological pathways of Eoconstrictor fischeri revealed another surprise. The neurological pathways of the Messel snake are comparable to those of the recent large boas and pythons – snakes that possess so-called “pit organs.” These organs are located between the scales of the upper and lower jaws and allow the snakes to generate a three-dimensional heat image of their surroundings by combining visible light and infrared radiation. This enables the reptiles to more easily detect prey animals, enemies, or hiding places.

“However, in Eoconstrictor fischeri these organs were only present on the upper jaw. Moreover, to our surprise there is no evidence that this snake preferred warm-blooded prey. Until now, we could only confirm cold-blooded prey animals such as crocodiles and lizards in its stomach and intestinal contents,” adds [paleoherpetologist Dr. Krister] Smith [of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum].

The team of scientists therefore assumes that the earliest pit organs served to generally refine the snakes’ sensory perception and – other than in modern constrictor snakes – were not primarily used for hunting or defense purposes.

The study has been published in the journal Diversity and can be read in full here. If you’ve never seen a fossil of a complete snake skeleton before, you’re in for a treat. Look at this badass:


Early Iron Age burial found in France

Monday, May 18th, 2020

Archaeologists have discovered the early Iron Age burial of a richly adorned woman in the town of Saint-Vulbas, eastern France. The older woman was found on her back, arms beside the body, an intact pot to the right of her head. She wore bracelets on each wrist made of alternating glue and green glass beads and copper alloy disks. The belt around her waist, probably made of leather, was covered in hemispherical copper alloy studs and closed with a copper alloy buckle.

While the tomb had collapsed over the centuries, it was possible to reconstruct its original shape: a rectangular pit containing the body of the deceased in a wooden coffin wedged into place by five smooth stones. The coffin had long-since decomposed, but its imprint remains on the soil. Fragments of the wood preserved under the body indicate that the coffin was made of oak.

The excavation of 2.5 acres slates to become an industrial park revealed a vast Iron Age burial ground. Three circular enclosures dating to the first half 8th century B.C. are believed to have been mounds originally. A cremation burial was found in the center of one of them. Near one of the enclosures, a funerary monument was built in the late 5th century B.C. It was a roofed structure on four posts features surrounded by a square enclosure.

In the middle of the enclosure is a pit with two separate deposits of cremated remains. A box of rigid organic material, likely wood, contained a selection of bones, washed after the cremation, and copper alloy filiform bracelets. The box was lined with limestone slabs. The second deposit contains bones, fragments of copper bracelets and an iron belt clip placed inside a flexible  container, probably a basket. The adornments suggest the deceased was a woman.


Remains of first Englishman in Japan identified

Sunday, May 17th, 2020

The remains of William Adams, the first Englishman known to have set foot in Japan and the inspiration for the John Blackthorne character in James Clavell’s novel Shōgun, have been formally identified 400 years to the day after his death. The remains were discovered in July of 2017 at the William Adams Memorial Park in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture.

The location of William Adam’s grave has been subject of extensive debate. A tomb was built for him at his fief in Hemi (modern-day Yokosuka City), but he died in Hirado and there’s a grave marker atop Sakigata Hill where he was rumored to have been buried. A small urn containing his remains were found near the marker.

The skeletal remains were in very poor condition. They had been moved into the urn in the 1930s after centuries spent in high acidic soil. Only 5% of the bones survived, but usable DNA was extracted. DNA analysis by University of Tokyo researchers found that the bones belonged to a northern European male who was between 40 and 59 years old at the time of his death. Radiocarbon dating put that time somewhere between 1590 and 1620.

Armed with that data and through process of elimination, researchers were able to officially confirm the bones belonged to William Adams.

At least eight other Englishmen were known to have died in Hirado around the same time, although an investigation by the Tokyo-based William Adams Club has ruled out the remains as those of another Englishman.

Foreigners were buried in their own cemetery in the port town, while Adams had asked to be interred on the top of a hill with a view of the ocean. Japanese records show that he obtained – either by purchasing or as a gift – a small plot of land at the top of Sakigata Hill sometime around 1613.

Adams was born in 1564 in Gillingham, Kent, and was became an apprentice to shipwright Nicholas Diggins when he was 12 years old. Twelve years later in the momentous year of 1588, Adams emerged from his apprenticeship an expert mariner and joined the Royal Navy. He served under Sir Francis Drake as captain of the supply ship Richarde Dyffyld, a merchant vessel that had been commandeered for the war.

He then turned his piloting talents to private ends, working for the Barbary Company which traded in cloth and sugar. In 1598, he was hired by a precursor of the Dutch East India Company to command a fleet of five ships on an epic journey to the Spice Islands via South America. It was a disastrous voyage. Hundreds of crewmen died crossing the Atlantic, the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific.

In April 1600, 24 survivors, including William Adams, anchored their limping vessel off the island of Kyushu after almost 20 months at sea. Only nine of the men would live to set foot Japanese soil. They were all imprisoned in Osaka Castle by order of Tokugawa Ieyasu, already the de facto ruler of Japan and soon-to-be shogun.

Ieyasu came to value Adams as a shipwright, diplomat, trader, interpretor and personal friend. Already in 1602 the shogun ruled that Adams, who had a wife and child in Japan, was not permitted to leave the country. Ieyasu granted Adams the two swords of the samurai and a new name and identity, Miura Anjin. He served the Ieyasu as hatamoto, a samurai retained in the direct service of the shogun. Adams built Western-style ships for the shogun and played a crucial role in negotiating the first treaty between Japan and Britain in 1613. After then, he was allowed to leave Japan for trade missions in East Asia. Adams never returned to England. He died on May 16th, 1620.


Roman leather toy mouse found in Vindolanda scrap bag

Saturday, May 16th, 2020

Curators at the Vindolanda Museum have discovered a Roman leather mouse in a bag full of scraps and off cuts. The flat piece of leather cut in the shape of a mouse dates to the early 2nd century. It is an angular, geometric outline and rather fat-tailed, reminiscent more of an Escher lizard than a mouse at first glance, but upon closer inspection there are dashes indicating hairs on the body and down the tail.

There are more than 7,000 leather objects in the museum’s collection, preserved in the anaerobic soil of the ancient fort site. Some of the Roman leather pieces now on display at the Vindolanda Museum are tents panels, patches, bags and enough shoes to make Imelda Marcos blush. Excavations have also unearthed many leather scraps which are in storage, not notable enough on their own to warrant going on display. Curators discovered the mouse in a box of leather offcuts and scraps that had been found in the period IV/V residence of the  commanding officer in 1993. That dates the mouse to around 105-130 A.D.

The Trust’s Curator, Barbara Birley said “One of the most wonderful things about the Vindolanda collection is that we never know what we are going to find next. Even though we have had to delay the start of our 2020 excavations this year we see the collection still has hidden treasures to be revealed. Although we have a significant amount of evidence of children at Vindolanda we have very few toys, it would be wonderful if this little mouse had been a toy and a source of entertainment for a child here on the northern frontier”.

Real mice were indeed everywhere in ancient Vindolanda, in every fort, likely to be present in all houses and spaces and would have been a consistent pest and companion to the people who lived there. When the Vindolanda granaries were excavated in 2008, the bones from thousands of dead mice were uncovered below the floors of the building, where they had been living and feasting on the ears of grain that dropped between the flagstones. It is quite wonderful that someone 2,000 years ago crafted this toy mouse from leather, in the knowledge that their creation would not have sharp teeth nor eat them out of house and home.

The museum will study and conserve the newly-discovered rodent and will then put it on display in the leather case.


Largest Pictish settlement identified in Aberdeenshire

Friday, May 15th, 2020

A hill fort in Aberdeenshire has been revealed to be the largest Pictish settlement in Scotland. The remains of ancient dwellings on Tap O’Noth, a hill in the village of Rhynie in northeastern Scotland, were radiocarbon dated to the 5th-6th centuries A.D. and the origins of the settlement may go back further to the 3rd century.

Excavations beginning in 2011 and recent drone surveys have pinpointed about 800 huts clustered on the hilltop around what the original fortified perimeter. That was expanded to cover the entire hilltop which was ringed by the Pictish fortification.

Professor Gordon Noble, who led the research, said: “This makes it bigger than anything we know from early medieval Britain.

“What was previously thought to be the biggest fort in early medieval Scotland is Burghead, at about five and a half hectares (13 acres).

“In England, famous post-Roman sites such as Cadbury Castle and Tintagel were around seven hectares (17 acres) and five hectares (12 acres) respectively.

“The Tap O’ Noth discovery shakes the narrative of this whole time period.

“If each of the huts we identified had four or five people living in them, then that means there was a population of upwards of 4,000 people living on the hill.

“That’s verging on urban in scale and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this.”

Not for another six centuries as least would settlements get this large.

The hill fort’s importance is reflected not just in the sheer numbers of huts and therefore residents, but also in the structures and objects found at the settlement. One of the huts is significantly larger than the others, an indication that the residents may have had an established social hierarchy. Artifacts unearthed at the site also indicate it was a high-status settlement. Large fragments of a 5th to mid-6th century Roman amphora imported from the Mediterranean area are of a type found at major royal centers like Tintagel in Cornwall, but the first ever found in eastern Britain and nothernmost ever found in the world.

There are other indications that Rhynie held a special position in Pictish society. In the valley at the base of the hill, archaeologists discovered glass drinking vessels from France, wine imported from the Mediterranean and extensive local production of metalwork. Eight Pictish symbol stones have also been found there, including the famous Rhynie Man, a slab six feet tall with the carved figure of a bearded man carrying a slim-handled axe over his shoulder. The stylized axe and the man’s head dress suggests he held a ceremonial role, represented a Celtic deity (the god Esus was often depicted with an axe) or perhaps a Pictish king.


16th c. castle remains found in Kyoto

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

A massive stone wall from a 16th century castle built by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi has been unearthed on the grounds of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The remains of the wall and a filled-in moat were discovered under the foundations of the Kyoto Sento Imperial Palace, the compound within the palace complex where emperors lived after they abdicated.

One section of castle wall, constructed in a north-south direction, measures about eight meters in length. The wall measured between 1 meter and 1.6 meters high in places and was comprised of three to four stone layers. Although the upper portion had collapsed, the wall in its prime was likely around 2.4 meters high.

The techniques used to construct the castle wall likely date to the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600) based on the careful manner in which blocks of stone were placed.

Researchers theorized that the moat was originally at least three meters wide and 2.4 meters deep.

Its age and owner were confirmed by the discovery of gold-plated roof tiles bearing Toyotomi’s crest in the fill of the moat.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was born in 1537, the son of a peasant and infantry grunt. Orphaned at seven, Hideyoshi made his way in the world working as a servant and later as a fighter for powerful daimyō Oda Nobunaga. Within 10 years, he was one of Nobunaga’s most successful generals. Nobunaga was assassinated by enemy samurai Akechi Mitsuhide in 1582. Hideyoshi fought Mitsuhide and won, cementing his power and influence in the Oda Clan and from there quickly rising in the military and political ranks.

In 1585 he attained the positions of Chancellor of the Realm and Imperial Regent (“kanpaku”). He ruled Japan in all but name by this point, wresting province after province from their local potentates to unify the country. He built a number of castles, including the massive Osaka Castle that is today one of Japan’s most important landmarks, and the Jurakudai in Kyoto.

The palace whose remains were just found was completed in 1591, the year before Hideyoshi’s death. The current Kyoto Imperial Palace was built in 1855, but it was eighth iteration to be built on the site, a common practice as palaces were constantly burning down and getting rebuilt. Hideyoshi’s castle was adjacent to the imperial palace.

The only surviving records of this castle were written by courtiers who refer to it as “Kyoto Shinjo,” meaning “new Kyoto Castle,” so a generic term rather the actual name of the building. The scant references suggested it was relatively unremarkable, a dwelling surrounded by a defensive wall, but the archaeological remains prove otherwise. The massive wall and the gold tiles point to this having been a grand, opulent structure.

“This is the greatest discovery this century related to an excavation of a Japanese castle,” [University of Shiga Prefecture professor and castle expert Hitoshi] Nakai said.

He added that Hideyoshi likely built it so Hideyori could succeed him to the court rank of “kanpaku,” the title for an individual who served as chief adviser to the emperor. […]

About a decade before constructing the Kyoto castle, Hideyoshi built the Jurakudai palace where he carried out his political duties as kanpaku and also resided. Hideyoshi turned over the Jurakudai palace and kanpaku rank to his nephew, Hidetsugu. But with the birth of Hideyori, Hidetsugu was compelled to commit suicide. Hideyoshi then ordered the Jurakudai palace to be demolished.

Kazuto Hongo, a professor of medieval Japanese history at the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo, said the Kyoto castle showed that the ancient capital still held immense importance to Hideyoshi even after he tore down the Jurakudai palace. […]

Hongo speculated that Hideyoshi built the castle as a means of passing on the authority of the high court ranks he held to his successors. Hongo noted that Hideyoshi was concerned about Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) gaining control of the nation after his death.

He was right to be concerned because that’s exactly what happened.


Norway to excavate first Viking ship burial mound in 100 years

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

In October 2018, a geophysical survey of a field in Halden, southeastern Norway, revealed the presence of Viking ship burial. The landowner had applied for a soil drainage permit and because the field is adjacent to the monumental Jell Mound, archaeologists from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) inspected the site first. Using a four-wheeler with a georadar mounted to the front of it. The high-resolution ground-penetrating radar picked up the clear outline of a ship 20 meters (65 feet) long.

The ship was found just 50 cm (1.6 feet) under the surface. It was once covered by a burial mound like its neighbor, but centuries of agricultural work ploughed it away. Subsequent investigation of the area found the outlines of at least 11 other burial mounds around the ship, all of them long-since ploughed out as well. The georadar also discovered the remains of five longhouses.

In order to get some idea of the ship’s age, condition and how much of it is left, in September of 2019, NIKU archaeologists dug a test pit was dug to obtain a sample of the wood of the keel. The keel was of a different type to ones from other Viking ship burials known in Norway. It is thinner and smaller than usual. The two-week investigation and analysis of the sample found that the ship does indeed date to the early Viking era. The wood was felled between the late 8th century and the start of the 10th century. 

In more distressing news, the analysis of the sample revealed that the wooden remains were under severe attack from fungus. The use of fertilizer on the farmland above the ship encourages the fungal growth and not only is the keel plagued by soft rot, the remains even at the deepest point where preservation conditions are the best possible are under acute distress.

Norway’s government has responded to the archaeological emergency by allocating 15.6m kroner (about $1.5 million) to excavate the Gjellestad Viking Ship and get it out of the ground before it rots to nothingness. While other Viking ship burials have been excavated in recent years, the last Viking ship burial mound to be excavated was the Oseberg ship in 1904-1905. If the Norwegian parliament approves the budget, excavation of the Gjellestad Ship is slated to begin in June.

[Jan Bill, curator of the Viking Ship Collection at the Museum of Cultural History,] said that even if the vessel was less well preserved that the team hoped, it could still provide important new information on Viking ship burials, as the Tune, Gokstad, and Oseberg ships, which were excavated in 1868, 1880 and 1904, respectively, were not carried out to modern standards.

“It’s important because it’s more than 100 years ago that we excavated a ship burial like this,” he said. “With the technology we have now and the equipment we have today, this gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand why these ship burials took place.”

“These were very early excavations so there’s a lot of information that we really don’t have because of the way it was done at the time.”

He said that as well as the keel of the boat, there were also signs of burial goods and other matter inside the ship.

“We know that when we excavate we will be able to investigate some of those objects,” he said.


How the Arch of Janus was restored

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The last time I was in Rome which feels like a century ago but was actually a year-and-a-half ago, I happened upon a rhino in front of a large, thick, four-sided arch. The rhino is not material to this story, really, and remains an unsolved mystery, but the arch turned out to be a little-known gem of the city: the only surviving quadrifons (four-faced) arch in Rome.

It was built in the second half of the 4th century A.D. in the Forum Boarium, the ancient city’s cattle market. It was looted for materials in the early Middle Ages and converted into a fortress by the Frangipani family. Between 1827 and 1830 it was deconverted back to what was believed to be its original configuration, only the restorers were mistaken and the original attic was destroyed, shortening the soaring arch into a bit of a cube.

Tucked behind the huge tourist attraction of the Bocca della Verità and neglected when other monuments in the Forum Boarium — the the Temple of Portunus and the Temple of Hercules Victor — were restored in the 90s and 2000s, the Arch of Janus was placed on the World Monuments Fund watch list in 2014 for its precarious condition. That spurred a multi-year study and restoration program that concluded in 2017.

The World Monuments Fund released a video about the restoration which I described as showing “tantalizing but not satisfying snippets of the restoration.” Now Italy’s Cultural Heritage Ministry has released the mega director’s cut. At 24 minutes, it is 12 times longer than the trailer and goes into gripping detail on the cleaning, restoration and structural challenges of the arch. Great extended intro with aerial footage of Rome too.






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